|Number 535||August 13, 2013|
This Week: Labeling The Media
This issue and the next are made up of Parts 1 and 2 of a chapter in the upcoming book"21st-Century Propaganda: How What We Believe Affects What We Believe." (Which may or may not be the eventual title, but it's the working title at the moment.)
This issue/chapter was inspired by a piece I wrote in 2003, called "What's In A Name? Labeling the Media." I've learned a lot since then, so what you see now is the "revised and updated" (and four times longer!) version of that earlier essay. Part Two is even longer than this week's Part 1, and you should see it within a week or ten days.
As always, drop me a note and tell me what you think, if you have a moment.
Not long ago the world was close to eradicating the deadly disease of polio. The campaign suffered a major setback when the U.S., in its attempt to pin down the location of Osama bin Laden, faked a vaccination drive in Pakistan. This led the Taliban to claim that all health workers were CIA agents, and to many people believing them. Big setback.
About a year ago, in NN #511, I reported a quotation from the Science Section of the New York Times that went like this: "In Pakistan, where polio has never been eliminated, the C.I.A.'s decision to send a vaccination team into the Bin Laden compound to gather information and DNA samples clearly hurt the national polio drive. The question is: How badly?"
Now, a year later, on July 22, 2013, this time on the front page, the New York Times reported again on "the Central Intelligence Agency, in its hunt for Osama bin Laden, had staged a fake vaccination campaign." But now the problem has evolved. It's not the CIA that caused the problem—it's the Pakistani people! After quoting a man named Usman who is "furious" about the CIA vaccination ruse, the Times tells us:
"Anger like his over American foreign policy has led to a disastrous setback for the global effort against polio."
It's important to pay a lot of attention to how we label, or name, different types of media. Naming is a method of categorizing aspects of the world, and a poorly-chosen name will often result in serious misunderstanding. If we look at a copy of the Wall Street Journal and then look at a copy of our local village's weekly newspaper, it's likely that we will recognize that we are looking at two different creatures. So the name we assign to either of them is probably not all that important. But what is important is to understand that our lives are impacted on a daily basis by the workings of a larger news and information system, one that includes both the Journal and any given local paper, as well as the other 1,400-plus daily newspapers in the United States. That number—1,400—is a large number, but even that large number understates the size and scope of the system, as the number swells to ten times that many if we expand our list to include all of the "information industry" organizations (that's the Census Bureau's term) in the United States. This expanded list would include such operations as TV and Radio outlets, data processing establishments, software publishers, the makers of movies, the publishers of books, and more.
The important distinction to make when talking about The Media as an institution is the distinction between the most powerful media—who not only decide what's newsworthy, but also why it's newsworthy—and the daily, weekly, and online media that also perform important functions in the overall information ecology, but do not have such a great effect on the overall intellectual landscape. In the 21st Century, the institution of The Media relies for its overall shape and direction on a relatively few media outlets, such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, NBC, ABC, CNN, NPR, the Associated Press, Bloomberg News, and a few others, most but not all of which are based in the United States. How to talk about all of this?
When the public intellectual bell hooks refers to the dominant culture in the U.S., she doesn't hesitate to string together as many powerful adjectives as needed to name the beast. She has referred to it as the "imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal culture." To some people it seems rather inefficient to utter all those syllables when referring to culture, but hooks is no fool. She doesn't use these words casually—she doesn't use any words casually!—and each of them has a specific and complex meaning.
What hooks makes clear in her use of that impressive string of adjectives is the idea that these aspects of the dominant—some might say "hegemonic"—culture are impossible to separate from each other. I suspect that hooks is also well aware that, by routinely stringing together these words in her writing and her conversation, she forces those in her audience to confront the fact that the critical thinking that she exemplifies allows for no shortcuts and no shorthand. Maybe, when our language (and the culture in which it develops) evolves a bit more, we will have words that more elegantly and efficiently express what she is talking about.
Some refer to The Media as the "corporate" media, some as the "mainstream" media. Some stress that it is the "for-profit" media, and some call it the "agenda-setting" media. I've toyed with the idea of calling it the "bound" media. All of these adjectives—these names—are accurate as far as they go. But none of them are sufficient to describe what it is we are dealing with when we talk about "The Media."
How about the bell hooks approach? What if we were to refer to The Media as The Mainstream Corporate For-Profit Bound Agenda-Setting Media? It's too cumbersome to use in casual conversation, and the acronym doesn't spell out anything memorable (MCFPASBM?), but if we were to refer to The Media as The Mainstream Corporate For-Profit Bound Agenda-Setting Media, here is what it might mean:
The MAINSTREAM Media.
Use of the word "Mainstream" in this context media refers to the fact that anyone who doesn't make an effort to paddle their intellectual boat somewhere else will perpetually drift along in the "main stream" of thought, as expressed in the mass media. An anecdote to illustrate: Years ago I left a copy of Z Magazine, a left-wing periodical, in the waiting room of a social service agency, in an effort to balance out the Oprah Magazines, TIME Magazines, and National Geographics that are always there. The next time I was there I noticed that the Z was gone, leaving the rest as before. I spoke with the person who had removed it, and she explained to me that the agency did not like to have magazines in the waiting area that might "upset people." I attempted to explain to her that there are a significant number of people who get "upset" when yet another waiting room has nothing but Oprah and TIME (and People and Reader's Digest and...).
Not only are the ads in these magazines offensive, I explained, but such magazines tend to endorse and support, through their content and their corporate ownership and so on, a very troubling status quo. I didn't change her mind; Z remains off-limits in that agency as in most. So there you have it: "Mainstream" publications are thought by most gatekeepers (from social service agency staff all the way up to editors and advertisers) to be items that do not "upset people." Magazines that are thought to "upset people"—no matter that they often WANT to upset people!—tend to disappear from waiting rooms in public places, and the explanation is that they are not "mainstream." And so one standard of acceptability is enforced.
The CORPORATE Media
To call the media "Corporate" is to say that it is a business, subject first and foremost to the control of the "market," which in turn in concerned with something other than creating or maintaining an empowered citizenry. What is it concerned with, you ask? C'mon, you know! It's the next adjective in the list!
The FOR-PROFIT Media
"For-Profit" is related to "corporate," and highlights the one fundamental demand of the "market," which is, of course, the making of money for the owners.
This is a key concept in understanding media in this culture, since the profit mandate forces media organizations to structure themselves in such a way as to attract audiences that are either a) likely to be consumers of their advertisers' products, or b) large enough to include significant numbers of people who are likely to be consumers of their advertisers' products.
The dynamic was explained in an unusually-frank front page story in the Wall Street Journal of May 20th 2002. The article was discussing the seemingly-odd tactic on the part of the television network NBC to refrain from trying to attract the largest audience possible for its broadcasts. The headline was "Prime Time: How NBC Defies Network Norms—To Its Advantage—Unfettered by a Media Parent, It Pursues Upscale Niche That Draws Advertisers—Short-Shrift to Minorities?"
Here are some key excerpts from the article:
Note that there is something here defined as "success" that does not include serving the needs of "families and minorities." In 2011 (most recent figures) the median household income in the United States was $50,054. Median household income for black families was $32,229, and for "Hispanic" households (Census term), it was $38,624. Only 32.5 percent of all households had income higher than $75,000 (the "75K-plus" demographic). Fewer than 19 percent of black households and fewer than 21 percent of "Hispanic"households met that threshold.
The Journal reported that NBC made only "minor tweaks" to its fall broadcast schedule, noting that the show in its lineup have "Different hooks and genres, but they all have something in common: The shows appeal to people with money—the same people big-spending advertisers like. 'NBC is the place to buy if you're selling to people who actually shop, not shoplift,' jokes NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa." Ha ha ha.
With the advent of digital communication and the ever-expanding capability of monitoring the consumption habits of media consumers, the phenomenon only becomes more pronounced.
The BOUND Media
It makes two different kinds of sense to use the word "Bound" when referring to The Media. The first meaning of "Bound" refers to operating within boundaries, the crossing of which will bring negative consequences for the news organization, as mentioned above.
The other meaning of "Bound" refers to the mental bonds in the heads of reporters and editors that are formed by their ideas about "how the news should be reported." Every reporter is expected to stay within these boundaries. Over time, partly due to the official training received in journalism schools and partly due to the socialization that comes with holding a position in the newsroom, working journalists will internalize the limitations that are necessary for success in the journalism trade. My experience has been that the average reporter isn't aware of such limitations and will usually vehemently deny that they exist.
One reason for the denial is that the above comments are seen as casting aspersions on the deep motivations and ethics of working journalists. That is not the point being made here, nor is it relevant to the discussion. The only concern of a news organization—or any organization, for that matter—is that the various parts of the system each do their part to produce the desired effects. So, while the profit orientation of the news business can't tell us about the thoughts, feelings, or motivations of reporters, it can and does tell us something about their behavior.
Whatever their ethical beliefs, it is highly unlikely in a "for-profit" newsroom that many people will be found who have a habit of acting in a way that serves to orient the news "product" away from the target audience, which ideally is large, affluent, and in the mood to buy. That is simply not the way to make a profit, and those who do it consistently will fail to move up in the newsroom. Eventually they won't be there at all. And newsrooms that attempt to elevate such people will likewise struggle to survive in the marketplace.
This is how an institutional emphasis on profit-making binds the hands of journalists. It's not that individual reporters are corrupted. Rather the issue is that the modern journalism trade is embedded in a system that promotes and retains "right-thinking" newsroom employees. This promotion and retention occurs almost automatically in response to the demands of the owners, who must adhere to the fundamental agenda of attracting the audience demanded by advertisers. In addition, whatever the political agenda of any individual in the organization, it is only the owners who have the power to impose their agenda on the organization as a whole.
The dynamic was neatly summed up by the media scholar and activist Robert McChesney in an interview on the news program Democracy Now! on August 7th, 2013. McChesney was speaking about the purchase of the Washington Post for $250 million by Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. Noting that major cities used to have multiple daily newspapers that would compete for readers, McChesney remarked:
The fifth adjective in the cumbersome media label is "Agenda-Setting," and it deserves a little more explanation than the other adjectives in the lengthy list. That's for the next issue of Nygaard Notes.